Dear Migrant Tales…when the workplace becomes a hostile place

by , under Enrique

Dear Migrant Tales,

Being the only black person at work can be challenging but what about if the workplace becomes openly hostile to you? By hostile I mean being constantly watched by your coworkers, if you make a mistake it’s always a bigger deal than if a white coworker did it, if you’re speaking on the phone, your work mates are the first ones to tell you that you’re not on a break.  

I got fired from my last job after working there for about four months. I’ve had many jobs but the last one was the worst. The work atmosphere there was terrible.

I confided in a worker, an older man, at my former job. I spoke openly to him about myself and some of my problems. I found out from another coworker that he was talking behind my back and exaggerating what I had told him.

One day while I was on a break, the person I confided in started to raise his voice at me. He told me that Somalis shouldn’t live in Finland and why don’t I  return back to where I came from.  I couldn’t take it anymore and raised my voice back at him.

The older man went immediately to our boss and told him that I had raised my voice at him. The boss spoke to us and then told me that he didn’t believe anything I said. He said he believed the white worker because he had worked at the company much longer than I.

I ended up getting fired.

White Finns have effective ways of excluding you at work. At the job I got fired, your opinion didn’t matter because nobody cared what you thought. It’s such a stressful situation! Some of my coworkers even asked me to do their job because they thought I was dumb. I’m not dumb.

I’m extra careful at my new job. I don’t want to get fired again and I’ve learned an important lesson: Not to mix with my coworkers and just mind my own business.

I’d appreciate any good advice on how a black person can survive at a Finnish company.

Abdulah 

 

Abdulah, who speaks to us under condition of anonymity, has appeared on Migrant Tales a number of times. 

 

  1. Enrique Tessieri

    Thank you Abdulah for sharing your experiences with us. I personally believe that you have to be extra proactive at work so that you’re part of the team – not excluded and outside of it. If competition can be fierce between workers, your skills as a team player are crucial. Joining a union could be a solution. You could get good advice and protection from such a place.

  2. PS voter

    It is sad to hear that you have been treated so badly. I think you should consider complaining about it and if you decide to do it, it is probably good idea to do it soon rather than wait first. It may be a good idea to write down everything you remember about your case, when you still remember things clearly. You should also write down all the dates and who said and what. Here is some advice from the web pages of Obmdubsman for Minorities:

    “Tunnen, että minua on syrjitty etnisen taustani vuoksi työhönottotilanteessa, työsuhteen aikana tai irtisanottaessa. Mistä saan neuvoja?

    Jos kuulut ammattiliittoon, ota ensisijaisesti yhteys omaan ammattiliittoosi. Työsyrjinnän valvonta kuuluu aluehallintovirastojen työsuojelun vastuualueiden toimialaan. Voit myös kysyä neuvoa asiassa vähemmistövaltuutetusta.”

    And even if you feel that the workplace is hostile for some other reasons that ethnic discrimination, you should contact työsuojelu as well. And if you have not been fired, I don’t recommend resigning. Your position is better if you still have the job when you are complaining and finding a new job is much easier, if you are still employed. For some reason, new employers prefer hiring people who are already employed over persons who are unemployed.

    And I recommend you to stay calm, even if you are treated unfairly. It is not good idea to give any excuses for firing you.

    Here is link to a page on he web pages of Obmdubsman for Minorities. I recommend you to read at least it. On that page is also a link to the työsuojelu, where you can find the contact information.

    http://www.vahemmistovaltuutettu.fi/fi/etninen_syrjinta/kysymyksia_ja_vastauksia/tyoelama

  3. PS voter

    Enrique’s recommendation of joining a union is a very good suggestion. I think all employees should join a union. You also get higher unemployment benefits, if you are a member of a union. If you for some reason decide not to join a union, I recommend to join at least so called Loimaan kassa (also known as Yleinen työttömyyskassa, YTK), so that you get at least the higher unemployment benefits, but not the other benefits you get from a union.

    I would like to add to my previous message some other reasons why it is not a good idea to resign yourself. If you resign yourself, instead of getting fired, there will be time period called karenssi, when you won’t get unemployment benefits. However, even if you have resigned yourself, you should as soon as possible to contact työvoimatoimisto and register as an unemployed job seeker. The karenssi time period doesn’t start to run before you have registered as an unemployed job seeker.

    And if you still have your job, a contact from työsuojelu might improve your situation. BTW, were you fired during or after so called koeaika (=trial period)? Although it is illegal to fire a person for ethnic grounds even during koeaika, it can be easier to prove that firing was illegal if it has happened after koeaika.

    If after talking to professionals about your case, you decide to take your case to court, it may be possible to take it as a criminal case or as a civil case. Both of them have good and bad things.

    If it is a criminal case handled by a public prosecutor and not by yourself or by your lawyer, you don’t have personal risks. If the prosecutor loses your case, you don’t have to pay the costs. However, proving a crime is more difficult than proving a civil case.

    If it is a civil case, proving discrimination is easier than in criminal case. If you manage to partially prove discrimination, the burden of proof shifts to the employer to show that he has not discriminated. However, if you lose your case, than can be very expensive, which is why I recommend against a civil case, unless it is water tight case and a very important for you.

    • JusticeDemon

      This is a reasonable analysis. I’d like to expand it just a little:

      One of the most important benefits of union membership (at least in unions that are affiliated to SAK and STTK) is fully comprehensive legal aid insurance. This means that the union assumes full liability for the risk of civil litigation when the union legal department is satisfied that a case is actionable. In other words, if the union is convinced that you have been treated illegally, then it will provide a lawyer free of charge to take the case to court, and will pay the costs arising if the action is unsuccessful. The member must obviously be honest with the union and respect the union’s reasonable judgement about how to proceed with the case, but otherwise the member bears no personal risk.

      Unions affiliated to Akava generally provide legal aid based on a separate insurance scheme. The member always pays a basic fee, and there is also an upper limit to the insured costs. The last time I checked this the basic fee was EUR 1,000 and the upper limit was EUR 11,000. The member is personally liable for any costs exceeding the upper limit. This is a serious constraint nowadays, as EUR 11,000 will only just about cover the costs of a very simple action that is settled at the first instance. More complex cases that reach the Supreme Court can easily cost five times this amount.

      Although it is possible to resign without notice from any job that has become unreasonable, it is very unwise to do so without reliable expert advice. The waiting period for benefits is discretionary, and it may not be applied if a trade union lawyer is convinced that you were entitled to terminate the employment and issues a written opinion to this effect that you can attach to your benefit claim.

      The most common response to stress caused by work-related harassment is to take sick leave. Obviously taking time off in this way does not solve the root of the problem, so it is important to bring the harassment to the attention of your union at this late stage if you have not already done so.

    • PS voter

      If you for some reason decide not to join a union, I recommend to join at least so called Loimaan kassa (also known as Yleinen työttömyyskassa, YTK), so that you get at least the higher unemployment benefits, but not the other benefits you get from a union.

      BTW, I just noticed that if you are a member of YTK, you can get some kind of insurance against illegal firing/legal fees from them by paying 17 euros extra per year. However, I don’t know how good insurance that is.

  4. PS voter

    BTW, it is usually not necessary, but in a malfunctioning workplace where there is a lot of tension, it is good to know that if you are present in a discussion, it is usually legal to record that discussion even with a hidden recorder, but please read some of the limitations on the page of Tietosuojavaltuutettu:

    http://www.tietosuoja.fi/41283.htm

    However, if you are not present and you just leave your recording machine to record what is said when you are not there, that is usually illegal unless the persons there know that you record them and give their permission.

    A phone, mp3 player or a recording machine might be useful to have as a safety measure. The recording function should be such that you can easily switch it on and preferably so that other persons don’t notice that you put it on.

    • PS voter

      There are some inexpensive disguised recording devices, that look like cigarette lighter, bluetooth headset etc, but those devices are often mean to record video and the voice is just afterthought and the voice quality might be too bad. And it can be difficult to start those devices and the batter might be empty etc. I have bought this kind of gadgets. They are nice toys, but I don’t think they are reliable enough for this kind of use.

      An recording machine (=sanelukone) might be the most reliable solution. The cheapest one on Verkkokauppa seems to be under 30 euros. However, it is probably a good idea to get also an external microphone that looks like phone headset, to be outside your pocket. I don’t know how easy it is to start the recording function on the cheapest model, but I think that usually the recording machines are quite easy and reliable to start which just one short keypress, which you can manage to do discreetly and without looking the machine.

      It is probably also easy to modify a recording device so that you have long wire from the recording machine to suitable location under you clothes, where you hide a switch. Of course, this a a bit extreme, but I think that inexpensive recording machine could give some peace of mind so that you know it is there, just in case you some day need it.

  5. PS voter

    And it is probably not a good idea to advertise that you are carrying a recording machine and may secretly record them. People usually don’t like that, even if it is legal. Just record them secretly, if you feel the need to do that, and you can then afterwards think if you need those recordings or not.

  6. PS voter

    However, it is probably a good idea to get also an external microphone that looks like phone headset, to be outside your pocket.

    Some of the models might not support external microphone, so it is good idea to check that before buying. And you can usually find a manual of devices from Internet, so it is good idea to check the functions of the device from the manual before buying it.

  7. PS voter

    My previous messages were meant as a general advice and not specifically for Abdulah, but I would like to add to Abdulah that if you need help in modifying a recording device to suit your needs better, I might be able to help you.

  8. PS voter

    I personally believe that you have to be extra proactive at work so that you’re part of the team – not excluded and outside of it. If competition can be fierce between workers, your skills as a team player are crucial.

    I think that being a member of a team can be useful, but I think that it may be good idea to try keep at least first personal life outside workplace. For example, I recommend against talking about controversial political issues or anything that might upset others — or revealing something that might make you vulnerable. And if you have some health problems, you should consider how much you want to tell them at work.

  9. Brave

    PS voter,
    Spying lessons??? :):):)))))))
    Whats that for?hee heee
    For ur information please
    työvoimatoimisto is old name for TE/toimisto
    By the way
    What is most important skill as a spy? LOL.
    ……………..
    Abdulah,
    I wish all is great for u now,
    We are all human beings no matter balck or white we r all beautiful creatures, our beauty is coming from our heart and thought not from our colour.
    Focus on ur work, focus on positive waves when ur in company and at work, so dont look at negative waves… and soon every one will be ur friend
    Peace is best… live with ur co/worker in peace.
    Peace to me, u and Finalnd and the world

  10. JusticeDemon

    Foreign employees are nearly always disadvantaged in the workplace and trade unions are an important instrument for empowering the weaker party at work. Unions can also provide a route to social inclusion.

    It is no accident that the worst examples of migrant worker abuse (Chinese stonecutters at Iittalan Kivijaloste, Russian bus drivers at Matkaliikenne Koivisto, etc.) always involve employees who are not organised in unions. The fair implication is that the union will at least take action to ensure that the employer complies with labour law and collective agreements. It is sometimes also necessary to overcome some minimal bureaucratic inertia within the union in my experience, but the union will usually bring its resources to bear fairly quickly on any problem that falls within its scope.

    Union activism is also a valuable way to get involved in society more generally and to learn the basic structures of the working world. Activism means attending events and volunteering to help with union business, even if this is only a matter of performing simple tasks such as sending invitations to meetings, putting up union notices, arranging the meeting room (and cleaning up afterwards). The elected officials will be grateful for help of this kind and for any feedback that you can provide from your co-workers. After gaining some experience and understanding of basic union work, you may even consider standing for a local elected position. The very act of standing as a candidate already boosts your image in the eyes of other employees, and will make the employer far more careful about treating you fairly. Aside from cases of pathological misconduct, only an exceptionally dimwitted employer would be foolish enough to harass a union activist who, by definition, is in frequent contact with people who specialise in combating workplace harassment.

    It is important to appreciate that union membership and activity is entirely normal and natural in Finland, and that it offers a valuable lifeline for anyone suffering improper conduct from the employer or from co-workers.

  11. PS voter

    fully comprehensive legal aid insurance

    Just to make sure, does that insurance cover also the expenses of the employer, if employee loses the case? I ask this because quite many legal insurances cover only your own attorney fees, but not the attorney fees of the opposite party, in case you lose your case.

    • JusticeDemon

      does that insurance cover also the expenses of the employer, if employee loses the case?

      Yes.

      This is one of the most important differences between the policies of unions affiliated to SAK and Akava, and is one reason why SAK union dues tend to be higher in absolute terms. You get what you pay for.

  12. PS voter

    The last time I checked this the basic fee was EUR 1,000 and the upper limit was EUR 11,000. The member is personally liable for any costs exceeding the upper limit. This is a serious constraint nowadays, as EUR 11,000 will only just about cover the costs of a very simple action that is settled at the first instance. More complex cases that reach the Supreme Court can easily cost five times this amount.

    There has been some sad cases were there has been court battles between former employee and employer which have lasted for years and employee has lost the case. The costs of the court battle may have been even hundreds of thousands of euros, which is so high figure that most persons cannot ever to pay it back. In practise this has ruined the lives of those people. This is why I recommend STRONGLY against a court cases, where you carry personal risks as it is probably not worth the risks. And even if you win the case, high level of stress that lasts for years, can ruin your health.

    However, if you have good enough insurance to guarantee you back — or even better, have public prosecutor handle the case for you as a criminal case, then it is another story. However, it is worth to notice, that criminal case is risk free only if you let public prosecutor to handle the case. If you handle it by yourself or with your own lawyer, there is a risk that in case you lose, you may have to pay not only your own attorney fees, but also the fees of your former employer.

    • JusticeDemon

      Litigation is ALWAYS the last and worst resort for resolving disputes. Another benefit of union membership is that alternative methods are normally available when a union represents its member. Cases that reach the courts normally turn on fine points of legal interpretation or intractable questions of fact that remain after a very thorough and informed investigation.

  13. PS voter

    There has been some sad cases were there has been court battles between former employee and employer which have lasted for years and employee has lost the case. The costs of the court battle may have been even hundreds of thousands of euros, which is so high figure that most persons cannot ever to pay it back. In practise this has ruined the lives of those people.

    I think it is worth to mention that usually these court cases have not been about ethnic discrimination. Typically the former employees have been native Finns, who have had troubles with the former employer for some other reason.